Spike Mendelsohn Of Capitol Hill’s We, The Pizza

by Amy McKeever | Eater.com

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

Spike Mendelsohn‘s Good Stuff Eatery had already been open on Capitol Hill for about two years the former Top Chef contestant opened We, The Pizza with a lot of buzz (and delays) last July. In the nearly a year that has passed, the chef has been busy building a brand for his pizza restaurant — as well as launching a Jewish deli food truck, making various media appearances and signing up for The Next Iron Chef. He also announced plans to franchise Good Stuff Eatery. So we chatted with Spike about We, The Pizza’s first year, and the road ahead.

How did you decide that it was time for a second concept? We decided it was time for a second concept when we realized the success of the first restaurant on Capitol Hill and the demand from the neighborhood and the people that worked in the neighborhood for good food that was sort of fast and quality. We just saw kind of an evolution of that whole little Capitol Hill area. We saw Sweetgreen was signing a lease, other restaurants were coming into play and it just started developing. And here next door to us was a little Greek restaurant that had seen its day and the owners kind of wanted to get out. It’s usually a dream come true to get a location right next to one of your existing locations. The decision to take the location was done first no matter what the concept. We didn’t have a restaurant idea, we just knew we loved the location, we loved the neighborhood, we had great success — let’s just sign a lease and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do with it. The evolution of the pizza restaurant started with being a really homey, family-style Italian sit-down restaurant. We juggled back and forth with doing a reinvented Greek taverna restaurant. We had many different thoughts for the location. We kind of looked at what we were doing the best at Good Stuff Eatery and we thought the fast-casual concepts were a trend and something we did really well. We had one of America’s favorite foods — hamburgers, fries and milkshakes — so why not take another one of America’s favorite foods, which is pizza, and take the same formula that we applied to Good Stuff Eatery and do it with pizza?

And what kind of research did you do into putting the menu together? We actually sat and paid rent on the location for about a year before we even opened up doors or started making money. We put in a year’s worth of research. We feel taking that amount of time for a restaurant is really important. So we took many trips to New York City. I took a trip to Baker’s Pride. The research that went into the project was intense. Everything from ovens from Italy, wood-burning ovens, clay ovens, coal ovens to Baker’s Pride ovens. We researched all sorts of different flours — maybe about 20 different varieties of flour with different protein content and what was going to work best for what oven. We ate a lot of pizza around the country, tried many different cheeses and then working with our branding company out of Texas. It’s an evolution. A lot of restaurateurs sign a lease and can’t wait to open up the doors. We like to look at a neighborhood, look at a location, get the location, be happy with it and then see what’s missing in the neighborhood. For instance, if we had opened up a sit-down restaurant right on that corner it probably wouldn’t have been the smartest idea because you have business from all the staffers who only have about a half an hour lunch break. So by the time we sit them down and get them water and their salad, they have to go again.

And how did the build go? DC’s a tough place to open up a restaurant because there’s a lot of different things you have to do that you don’t really have to do in New York City or wherever you go. But it was our second opening in the city so it definitely went more smoothly because we learned from our mistakes. We made some different mistakes that we’ll learn from for the next project. But all in all it was pretty much a smooth process, just took awhile. Took a year.

What were some of those mistakes that you learned from? When we first opened Good Stuff Eatery we had no idea on how we were going to get the burger to you. We started off with pre-wrapped burgers like McDonald’s because we didn’t know what to expect. We had all this marketing and publicity, we said, “OK, this is our opening date. Everyone come.” So for the first three months of the restaurant there were lines out the door and we couldn’t even keep up. So we learned to have a couple of different soft openings and maybe not have as much publicity or marketing. With We, The Pizza we pulled back and we tried to think a little bit more as a consumer and reach out to the community to see what they loved about Good Stuff Eatery and what they didn’t love about Good Stuff Eatery. Even dealing with the architect is a little different. When you open a restaurant it’s very easy to spend money and waste money. When you’re in contracts with a restaurant, it’s like, “This is what I need to get done. This is how much it’s going to cost.” But then everyone knows there are 100 other things that come up in a restaurant that need to be done. If you don’t have that in a contract, they’re going to charge you for it.

And how did the opening go? The opening was really successful, but our air conditioners broke. That was kind of a bummer. Four 600-degree pizza ovens on a hot day. It was really, really hot. But you know what? We had a DJ, we had cold beer, we had great food and we threw a really great party. It went really well. It was super packed all night long. But we were only at 100 percent confidence with Good Stuff Eatery’s operations and food and menu maybe a year and a half after we opened it. So you’re speaking to me at a moment when I’m coming around the year mark of the restaurant and I’m still making changes to the menu and we’re still making changes to the process. The evolution of We, The Pizza hasn’t reached pinnacle yet. I’m not trying to open up any more We, The Pizzas yet until I get this one 100 percent where I want it to be.

What are some of the changes that you’ve realized you need to make throughout the year? The place is called We, The Pizza, we sell pizza primarily. The sandwiches aren’t really the most amazing, so we thought about putting strombolis on or calzones and we tested those out, but it was just like having pizza wrapped up. So we didn’t really love that. We came out with this whole copa menu when we first opened. But they were not selling, it didn’t really work. So we just went to serving regular gelato in a sugar cone. You want to be different and you want to embellish, but then, OK, well this is not working, let’s pull back to where we need to be. For instance, the wings are working. So we’re coming out with a hot sauce bar for the wings. We’re going to open up delivery. Everyone really wants to have pizza on Sundays, so we’re probably going to open up for Sundays soon. You never open a restaurant and not pay attention to it and think you nailed it from hello. Coming at the year mark for us in the company it’s important to look at the restaurant and see what the successes are and see what the downfalls are and just be as truthful to ourselves. We can’t have an ego in the business. Things that don’t work, we’ve got to get rid of them and fix it. The things that do, we’ve got to capitalize on. Because, you know, when you open up a restaurant there’s a honeymoon stage where people are going to forgive you for your mistakes. Eventually they’re going to become loyal customers or they’re going to move on to other places. You want loyal customers. That’s what it’s all about. We really try to pay attention to that.

What did you think about the response from the critics and the neighbors and everything once it opened? I was not disappointed whatsoever with any of the press that we got. When I say press, I’m talking about the Washington Post, the critics and all that stuff. Then you have the bloggers that are a whole other department of press. You have to pay attention to the bloggers. They’re just as important as the food critics. In fact, I feel like a lot of bloggers out there have a bit more of a cult following than some regular critics. What I did find out, though, is that everyone has an opinion about pizza. You can’t please everybody. I want them to come in and have a good time and eat pizza. But pizza is so personal to people. It’s unbelievable. I never really realized it until I opened up my own pizza place. The amount of cheese, the amount of oil, the crust — the chewiness of it or the crispiness. Some people like it a little burnt at the bottom. Some people see black little specks at the bottom of the crust and they’re like, “This is overdone,” without even tasting. At some point you’ve just gotta focus on what you’re doing, what you’re trying to accomplish and take bits and pieces of everybody’s criticism and apply it the best possible way to your menu and your restaurant that you can. But overall I thought the press was great.

And I know you guys had already been serving the First Family at Good Stuff, but how was it when they started coming into We, The Pizza? Whenever the First Family comes into the restaurant it’s an honor. Michelle Obama has been one of our biggest supporters out there and our most important client. She’s been into We, The Pizza far more times than she’s been at Good Stuff Eatery. I think she’s been in the restaurant maybe five or six times, with her staffers or with her children. It’s a true honor. I mean, it’s Michelle Obama. You pinch yourself that she asks to talk to you. And then you sit down and you talk to the kids, you talk to her about everyday stuff. It’s an experience where you go home at night and you lay your head on your pillow and you’re like, “Wow. That was kind of amazing.” And every time she comes in, I still have that feeling. It never really goes away. It’s a proud feeling. It’s just a cool thing and I really try to do as much as I can to support Michelle Obama’s initiatives like reforming school lunches and Let’s Move. I feel it’s a great relationship, and I’m just honored to be able to have the opportunity to do that. I never thought at this point in my career I would ever be at that point. But you know what? She really inspired us on our second restaurant to look at things a little bit differently. We employ people through DC Central Kitchen, which is a relationship she has. And she may not know this, but the homemade soda fountain was truly inspired by a couple of comments she made in an article once about high-fructose sodas and syrups and how they’re bad for kids and how people should make fresh sodas at home. It was like a lightbulb went on in our heads and we were like, wait a second, we’ve got to bring back the old soda jerk and make our own fresh fruit purees because we’re all about supporting our local farmers and making homemade food.

So does it feel like it’s been a year? No man, it feels like I’m still in my first three months. I can’t believe Good Stuff Eatery has been open for three years. We opened up We, The Pizza pretty much at the same time we opened up Good Stuff Eatery, so not only is We, The Pizza’s first anniversary coming up, it’s Good Stuff Eatery’s three-year anniversary. And that’s kind of freaking me out a little bit.